How Mobile Devices Are (And Will Be) Used In The Plant

May 2016

The recent release of the Apple watch is sparking discussions about mobile technology and when or how it may impact the plant. It’s still early in the development cycle for “wearable” technology and its utility in the plant environment is dubious at best. More evolved mobile devices and applications, however, are becoming more important in the world of manufacturing and, along with the proliferation of smart devices and sensors (the Industrial Internet of Things) are changing the nature of plant visibility and management.

Manufacturing Execution Systems (MES) provide visibility and control on the production floor through direct connections to plant equipment networked with quality, scheduling and tracking applications. In recent years, MES is often accessed through plant floor devices including ruggedized PCs and touch screens that both display MES information (schedules, priorities, work instructions, specifications and documents) and accept activity reporting input.

The obvious place for mobile devices to be used in manufacturing management is to tie into the MES network—not as a replacement for existing touch screens and PCs, but to provide additional ways to access the MES information. Supervisors and managers no longer need to be tied to the office when reviewing performance and job status. As they walk through the production area, they can easily check schedules, the status of upstream jobs that are due to arrive at a workstation, inventory status and location, tooling availability, and more.

Mobile device access allows the supervisor or manager to see all production and inventory information, quality data, specifications, and more while out in the plant. Furthermore, access to both MES and ERP information on the mobile device allows the manager to put the data into context. A production problem (or simply a status update) can be coordinated with sales and customer service to keep the customer informed, or answer their questions, right from the plant floor where the activities are taking place.

Tablets and the new generation of larger smart phones (sometimes called phablets) have large enough screens to display a useful amount of information. Today’s wearables are severely limited in display size, and can only serve as an adjunct to larger-screen devices (smart phones), although they will be useful for communicating alerts or alarms.  This situation will undoubtedly change as the technology evolves. Do you feel that wearables will find a place in manufacturing management?

Has your company introduced mobile devices in the plant as well as out in the field?